Pep Comics #17

  • Writer: Cliff Campbell
    Penciller: George Storm
    Inker: George Storm
    Editor: Abner Sundell
  • Archie Publications, 1941

A comet requires context to identify it. In the coldest recesses of outer space, a comet is an icy dirtball rushing on a sable ellipse to nowhere. Ahhh, but as a comet nears stars and dances with their solar winds, the comet’s coma and tail become plain to see. The comet is always a comet…but only in the second context is the comet visible–indeed, it’s impossible to miss.

A bully requires context to identify it, as well. In a context where LGBT rights are opposed, where queer folk are viewed as damaged, disordered, or diabolical, teenage bullies receive tacit permission to torment gay teens–indeed, these tormentors are not perceived as bullies but as purveyors of righteous retribution. This bully dynamic is often at work in super-hero comics, and few super-doers display it better than the Golden Age Comet.

The Golden Age Comet is John Dickering, a Manhattan-based chemist who discovers “a gas fifty times lighter than hydrogen.” As is standard procedure amongst Manhattan-based chemists who discover gases fifty times lighter than hydrogen, John-Boy injects himself with his discovery. Rather than inducing a super-case of decompression sickness, the injection allows John-John to fly-fly. This being science and all, the gas injection further produces a side effect which manifests as a toxic, ahem, load behind his eyes…because da gas-bone connected to the da retina-bone, as any scientific scientist will scientifically tell yuh. Fettered via Cyclopean visor, that load can be collated into a disintegration ray, often wielded by Our Hero to fatal effect against the mobsters and the miscreants and the molls. This lethal tactic leaves the Comet wanted, in the most negative sense, by the forces of both gangland and goodness.

As for the Comet tale presented in 1941’s Pep Comics #17, the derring-doer–believing that note-wrapped rocks are so 1940–decides to throw himself through the police headquarters window in order to deliver an urgent message. “This is one of Big Boy Malone’s mob!” the super-hero reports to New York’s Finest as he deposits on the floor a buggy hugger-mugger named Chugger. “He’ll tell plenty if he’s sweated! John Dickering, who helped me catch him, will testify also!” His urgent message delivered, the Comet uses his blood gas to defenestrate himself like a semi-delusional Greg Louganis on lithium pills. The police–enjoying a break from breaking up Occupy Wall Street demonstrations–thank Citizen Comet with a quaint, lead-flinging farewell ceremony known as “Shooting To Kill.” Obviously, the coppers take window-breaking verrry serrriously.

Big Boy Malone catches wind of the whole sweating-his-crony routine, so he arranges to have the Comet’s civilian self silenced via trenchcoated torpedo. “There’s only one guy whose testimony counts–John Dickering,” the pug ugly mugs ugily. “We gotta rub him out ‘n spring Chugger. It’s our only chance!” Alas, Malone’s multiple would-be out-rubbers instead grab Bob Dickering, younger brother of John, who’s visiting from college. The fingermen decide to flip his off-switch anyway, because, as Prism’s male readers will attest, once you’ve seen one Dickering, you’ve pretty much seen them all.

Frère Jacques–working in his lab, while all dragged out in stars and moons and stuff–spies with his toxic eyes the fraternal abduction. Apparently subscribing to the fiat that “no one can rough up my widdul brudder but me,” the Comet deliberately draws the ratboys’ fire from the younger Dickering as Bob makes a break for it. Tragically, the gunsels prove to be better shots than the broken-fenster-fretting cops were: each scores a hit, and the mystery man (presumably) leaks equal parts blood and gas. The Comet’s soul subsequently breaks up like his namesake crashing into a solar wind, this dissolution generally being accepted by comics historians as the first time a comic book mystery man dies in the line of duty. The Comet’s brother vows to continue his lethal work. “I’ll carry on for him, Thel!” the younger Dickering tells the Comet’s widowed girlfriend. “I’ll bring his murderers to the hangman! I’ll BE their hangman!”

What with the star witness being secretly dead and all, the case against Chugger is dismissed by a suitably moustached judge…which is when Bob, having designed a costume matching his deathbed vow, sets about the unConstitutional work of knocking out and abducting Chugger as he emerges from the courthouse. “Halp!” bugs one of Chugger’s mugger chums. “Murder! Kidnapper! He’s driving away in that truck!” Apparently, where felonies are concerned, these are some skels who dish it out better than they take it.

Chugger awakens to find himself in a dark room. That proves surprisingly scary to the hardened criminal, but he just manages to keep it together…until a Hangman-cast gallows-image splits the dark, causing Chugger to crack like Orson Welles’s pants. “I’ll tell everything to the cops and to anybody about Big Boy Malone!” Chugger chugs. “Only get me outta here!” Too bad Dick Cheney never heard of gallows-flashing as an enhanced interrogation technique–he might have saved considerably on the White House water bill.

This promised confession, all by its illegal self, dooms Big Boy Malone, but hecks, a trial might take a few hours, and illegally abducting bad guys is kind of like munching a Lay’s potato chip–you can’t stop at just one–so the Hangman kidnaps Malone, as well, and subjects him to the shiny gallows treatment. The coppers, regrettably, choose that moment to chase away the masked crypto-fascist via their reliable Shooting To Kill ritual. Malone is subjected to a trial that (apparently) transpires so quickly, it doesn’t even merit a single panel. The crime boss is then hanged by a hangman who isn’t the Hangman. Which is kind of gyp, when you stop to think about it.

Context is what identifies a comet as a comet, and it’s what identifies a bully as a bully. The proper context can turn a Big Boy into a little girl, a hardened criminal into a flaccid coward, and a victim into a villain. Adults are duty-bound to create a context where LGBTness is judged to be equal to heterosexuality, a setting that is more starshine than darkness, and an ellipse that will expose bullies as the icy dirtballs they are.

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